It has long been a curatorial fantasy of mine to organise a re-staging of a boxing match that took place in 1972 between the German artist Joseph Beuys, regarded as a giant of modern art, with a local art student of his. The performance, entitled “Boxing for Direct Democracy” had the artist boxing for exactly that, direct democracy while his opponent boxed for representative democracy. After three rounds Beuys won. Was the match rigged? Who knows, it’s performance history. I would re-stage it in a manner of convivial camaraderie in the context of the EU referendum vote, a way of bringing us closer together – have a Leaver slog it out with a Remainer, direct democracy versus representative democracy. I began to wonder who would I nominate as my Remainer opponent (I’m sure I’d be able to find a Brexit boxer for this project), then after reading Matthew Parris’s column in The Times on Saturday 24 March 2018, it became clear who should go into the ring.
I was on a public debate with Matthew Parris on the evening of Tuesday 20 March organised by some volunteers for the liberal-conservative think-tank Bright Blue, whom I’ve been told were largely Remain voters, to discuss Brexit and the World of Arts and Culture alongside two of my compatriots from Artists for Brexit, the artists Michael Lightfoot and Sarah Peace aka Eca Eps, in the top room of a packed out pub in Southwark, with a healthy mix of people who voted Leave AND Remain. It was a great atmosphere, unfortunately, Matthew Parris arrived late (he thought the talk was to start at 7:30 pm rather than 7 pm), and missed my 7-8 minute introduction.
My opening remarks referenced David Bowie, David Hockney and Grayson Perry who all at one point in their lives referred to the common market or the recent EU referendum. David Bowie said in an interview with the NME in 1971 that “Britain just doesn’t know what revolution is. The people should be fighting against the Common Market but they won’t until it’s too late.” Yes, David Bowie is a prophet, a demi-god and I worshipped him.
I also made my personal case for a progressive liberal immigration policy, and described the immediate things the British government can do to alleviate restrictions on non-EU and possibly future EU artists’ mobility: drop the cap on Tier 1 exceptionally talented/exceptional promise visas, extend the permitted paid engagement visas from 30 days to 120 days, ditch certificates of sponsorship requirements for touring to the UK, re-introduce the scrapped post study work visa and extend it for up to 3 years and finally reduce the salary threshold for Tier 2 cultural workers and employed artists from £30k to £20k.
My final plea was to artists, musicians and writers – get out of the cosmopolitan bubble and make some work that’s inspired by the 17.5 million leave voters that doesn’t demonise or reduce them to one-dimensional caricatures. That, in a nutshell, is what Parris missed me saying.
Instead of debating with us, Parris had a fixed agenda, comparing Artists for Brexit to the ‘useful idiots’, a term used by Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin to describe liberals who were not communists but supported the Russian Revolution.
Parris’s derogatory view of us sees as unwitting and naive cheerleaders for Jacob Rees-Mogg and the populist shadow of the anti-immigrant and racist masses who voted for Brexit. It’s an argument that’s not new to me, having lost good friends and the respect of many of those in the arts industry who regard me has having sided with UKIP and racists in the vote.
I genuinely believe that Parris is wrong in his assertion that the majority of Leave voters are anti-immigrant and racist. I’m not naïve to think that there isn’t a ‘shadow’ of some hard authoritarians and anti-foreign types who backed Brexit, but just how big a percentage and how influential are those people when it came to voting to leave the EU? Parris assumes that these types are the main driving force, but he gave no evidence during our debate nor in any of his journalistic writing that I could find. The writer and journalist David Goodhart, however, has researched and examined attitudes that led to the winning Brexit vote, in his book Road to Somewhere (2017). For the group he called ‘Hard Authoritarians’, Goodhart found that people who will always support Britain even when wrong were about 5% of the population; people who admitted to being very prejudiced against people from other races was only 1%; 4.7% believed strongly that only white people can be truly British. Overall, only 5-7% could be regarded as racist nationalists or hard authoritarians.
I agree with Parris that we should never fully trust politicians, and as a left-libertarian, I really don’t give a monkey’s about who’s designing and producing our future British Passport, but the former Tory MP (1979 – 86) is wrong to write off leave voters as xenophobes.
So, Matthew how about taking part in my art project, a homage to the spirit of a great German artist Joseph Beuys? I promise to tell your opponent not to go too hard on you. My other playful art idea is to get a Brexit and a Remain Tarot card reader to respectively predict what our British future may look like, maybe you have a penchant for reading the future?
Manick Govinda is a senior arts professional and a co-founder of Artists for Brexit @artists4brexit